Friday, July 22, 2011

River's End and Relia's: A Taste To Remember

Coming from a large, loud and deeply Southern family I would be lying if I said that most of my childhood memories and existence wasn't centered around food. Every family gathering, whether a wedding, funeral, or anything in-between was an excuse for the women in my family to cook and for the rest of us to eat. To this day, a golden piece of cornbread still tastes like a Sunday afternoon in my great-grandmother's kitchen. Windows thrust open to sweltering late summer, the smell of roses and baking bread, my great-grandmother up to her elbows in flour and cornmeal.

To me birthdays will always be homemade chocolate cakes, the chlorine of our backyard pool, fireflies at dusk, butter cream frosting dripping off my aunt's fingertips in the candlelight. Pecan pie is a family reunion tradition. Homemade stuffing is for Thanksgiving. Tortilla wraps and potato salad are Christmas appetizers. I can honestly say that every important memory I have is dripping with some sort of sauce or stuffed with some variety of cheese. Even now that I'm out on my own, I can't eat a steak without seeing my father and his two brothers circled around our grill, laughing and reminiscing about this car or that friend as the kebabs burned in the twilight, forgetting for a few moments that they were already old and that their children were hungry.

Needless to say, I've learned that good food is an essential part of a good vacation. That's why when I first came to NOC I made it a part of my mission for the summer to scout out the best dishes at NOC's two main on-campus restaurants: River's End and Relia's Garden.

At a little seaside cafe in Sorrento, Italy an Italian waiter once told me that the way to a woman's heart was through a good pizza. If that's true then River's End has been playing cupid for years, because amazing pizzas are their forte. Flip to the back of the menu and beeline straight for the Big Fat Greek Pizza with feta cheese, olives, artichokes and pepperoncinis. Opt for the gyro meat over the chicken and close your eyes as each bite whisks you away to the white sands and blue waters of Mykonos. If the Greek Pizza doesn't sound like your thing then the Veggie Delight Pizza is also a popular choice. Piled high with olives, mushrooms, broccoli, and tomatoes and bubbling with cheese, the Veggie Pizza is a great way to to make a healthy choice a delicious one. Split the 10 inch with a friend and pair it with the Greek salad for bonus veggie points!

If you need some extra protein to support all that paddling you plan on doing then choose the Bulls Sluice Burger. Smothered with mushrooms and Swiss cheese it tastes uncannily like a Philly Cheese steak except with tenderer meat and more substance. After my five year old cousin took a bite he confidently pronounced it “man food” but it has heartiness enough for both genders. Another great burger option is the voracious vegan. Crunchy as a burger on the outside, the inside is soft and melted veggie goodness with a little spice. In my opinion, the Voracious Vegan Burger is one of the best dishes on the menu whose unique flavor is enough to win over even the pickiest eater. If you're not feeling the complimentary side salad or chips then substitute the tater tots for an additional 75 cents (the best 75 cents you'll ever spend) and enjoy an old raft guide favorite.

Some other popular dishes include: the infamous Chicken Sherpa (a basmati rice dish cooked with stir fried veggies, cheese, and lentils), The Nantahala Gorge Club Sandwich, and Walnut Dill Chicken Salad Sandwich. Pair any of these options with the BBQ Whitewater Wings as an appetizer and the Homemade Cobbler for dessert and you have an unforgettable meal ahead of you.

River's End is a classic dining experience. It's a place to catch up with old friends, re-live moments on the river with family, or charm a first date. It's a place where nobody raises their eyebrows if you walk in with river gear on, where you can watch the fog roll off the river from your table, and where affordable prices meets great food. River's End is all the tradition and comfort of a family dinner at home with a unique rustic mountain flair.

And then there's Relia's Garden. Nestled at the top of a hill, surrounded by a garden filled with flowers and herbs, overlooking the river below; Relia's is truly something out of a fairytale. You walk into a scene of rustic elegance. Dark mahogany wood creates high ceilings and large windows inside and an expansive deck outside for meals. Soft lighting and candlelight makes every meal a romantic and special affair.

Throughout the whole meal our waiter Jacob was courteous, prompt and exceeded service expectations for a fine dining experience. Upon his recommendation we started out with the Black Eyed Pea and Collard Fritters appetizer. The dish was a mash up of black eyed peas and collard greens, lightly breaded and served with a sweet tangy ham au jus. Another popular appetizer is the Crab Stuffed Hush Puppies which is served with spicy mayonnaise.

We then moved on to our second course: light leafy salads with carrots and tomatoes, drizzled in lemon, ginger vinaigrette. The ginger vinaigrette gave the salad a distinctly Asian flair that was unusual and refreshing. With most of the entree dishes, the salad comes included in the cost. It presents a very nice prelude to the main event.

For the main course my friend ordered a crab cake po-boy sandwich with brussel sprouts and I had the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. If the appetizer and salad hadn't already impressed me, I would've been completely floored by the main dish. Both dishes were artfully arranged and presented in timely accordance with the other courses. The Salisbury steak was drenched in a succulent gravy that blended the satisfying familiar taste of Southern cuisine with the finesse of fine dining. The mashed potatoes were homemade and blended with herbs while the brussel sprouts were seasoned and cooked to perfection. The Salisbury steak was also featured as one of the daily Blue Plate Specials which allows you to try four-star dining at a very reasonable price.

I have never been a big seafood person. With my father suffering from severe shellfish and seafood related allergies, I was inculcated with a disdain for all types of fish from a young age. Needless to say, it was a feat getting me to try to the crab cake po-boy at all but I am so glad that I did. I was completely blown away. The bread was toasted and buttery while the crab cake itself was lightly battered and tender. I couldn't detect even the slightest salty or fishy taste. The crab cake po-boy sandwich was so amazing that it actually managed to convert me into a seafood person! Even, if it is just the occasional crab cake.

After our entrees it was on to the main finale, a piece of French Silk Pie. Made of chocolate ganache and the slightest pinch of cayenne pepper it's served with raspberry jam and cappuccino whipped cream. Although the mixture of chocolate and pepper may sound strange, it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. The pepper brings out the overall flavor of the dessert and adds the lightest kick to the dish. It was a wonderful end to a spectacular meal.

Relia's Garden is truly a special and unique dining experience. It's food that takes me back to the comfort of my grandmother's kitchen while simultaneously providing the cultural experience of a New York City restaurant. It is a titillating encounter for the taste buds in a place that brings an elegance and romance to Smoky Mountain dining paralleled only by the beauty of the mountains themselves.

Food defines our memories. Each summer I've spent at NOC has been filled with whitewater adventures, moonlit hikes, and lakeside campfires; but what often really sticks with me are those dog tired breakfasts, lunches and dinners enjoyed afterward. And I know, in years to come, I won't be able to practice my roll, raft through a Class IV rapid, or look at a garden drenched in starlight without tasting a Greek Pizza or a slice of French Silk Pie.

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